The achievements of Black professionals are not always recognized, but the contributions of some very talented Black software engineers are impossible to ignore. Their work has been highly valuable to the field of software engineering. Read on to discover more about famous Black computer programmers and learn their stories.
Black Software Engineers: The Current Landscape
Black software engineers are historically an underrepresented group in the field of software engineering, and the industry still lacks diversity, with white software engineers making up over 52% of the U.S. workforce. Black software engineers, on the other hand, make up less than 5%.
The number is even lower for Black female software engineers. The National Centre for Women & Information Technology estimates that in 2022, only 3% of all women working in technology were black.
But don’t let the small percentage of Black software engineers fool you. Many famous Black software engineers have made significant contributions to the field.
Learn More: 5 Things I Learned as a Black Woman in Tech
Famous Black Software Engineers Throughout History
From the past through the present, Black engineers have been partly responsible for shaping technology and the field of software engineering as we know it. Although their contributions may go unnoticed, we see and use their work every day. Here are just a few famous black software engineers who made a difference in the field.
1. Mary Jackson
Mary Jackson was the first Black female engineer at NASA, and you might recognize her as the subject from the movie Hidden Figures. Jackson began working at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) in 1951, and she was a member of NACA’s West Area Computing Unit, the West Computers. This unit consisted of Black female mathematicians. The women gathered information that was crucial to the early development of the United States’ space program.
Her career at NASA began when she was hired in 1958. During her nearly two-decade-long engineering career at NASA, she wrote or co-wrote a large number of research studies. The majority of these studies examined the behavior of the boundary layer of air around airplanes. Jackson retired from NASA in 1986 but continued to work in the field until she died in 2005.
2. Evelyn Boyd Granville
Evelyn Boyd Granville was a pioneer for women of color in computer programming. She was the second Black woman to receive a Ph.D. from an American university — Yale.
When Granville finished her doctorate in mathematics and astronomy, she began contributing to various groundbreaking initiatives. At IBM, she worked on the first commercially available computer as well as the first artificial satellite, the first manned space station (Project Mercury), and the first manned lunar landing (Project Apollo). Evelyn returned to the classroom in 1967 to teach and stayed until retirement.
Granville managed to make a name for herself, despite the challenges she faced as a Black woman during her time. She received various honors for work such as the Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal (the highest honor bestowed by the Yale Graduate School Alumni Association), an honorary degree from Spelman College, and a position on the Mathematically Gifted & Black Black History Month Honoree list.
3. Roy Clay Sr.
Roy Clay Sr. was a Black man who helped create the history of Silicon Valley and Hewlett-Packard (HP). He’s been penned as “the Grandfather of Silicon Valley” and became HP’s pioneer in software.
Clary was born in 1929 in Missouri, and he was the first Black person to graduate from St. Louis University. He earned his degree in mathematics in 1951 when computer science didn’t even exist yet as a field of study. After becoming interested in computers, he persevered and, in 1956, secured a career as a computer programmer at McDonnell Aircraft. He had previously been rejected for a position at this company because of his race.
In 1958, he took a position working for the U.S. Department of Energy at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in California, developing computer programs to simulate the dispersal of radioactive particles following a nuclear explosion. David Packard of the Hewlett-Packard company in Palo Alto heard about Clay’s efforts and hired him in 1965 to launch HP’s computer development division. The success of HP in the technology industry can be attributed primarily to Clay.
4. Kimberly Bryant
Kimberly Bryant is the founder of Black Girls Code, a non-profit organization designed to encourage Black girls to enter the fields of science and technology. The organization runs coding camps and workshops for young girls to learn how to code. This organization has since grown into a global movement with chapters all over the United States and abroad.
Bryant always had an interest in math and science, which led her to study Electrical Engineering and Mathematics at Vanderbilt University. She was the only person of color in most of her classes and found herself in a similar position when she started working.
Bryant’s daughter, Kai, inherited her mother’s interest in math and science, which led Bryan to create Black Girls Code to help provide more opportunities for her daughter and other Black girls to have access to the tech industry. Bryant was recognized as a White House Champion of Change in 2013 for her efforts to close the gap by increasing access to technology careers for Black girls.
5. Gladys West
Gladys West was a pioneer in the field of STEM and was responsible for the development of the Global Positioning System (GPS). Her work helped establish the foundation for modern navigation technology. It’s still used today in everything from commercial shipping to military operations.
West was born in 1930 in rural Virginia and became the valedictorian of her high school. This earned her a full scholarship to the then-called Virginia State College (now Virginia State University). She graduated in 1952 with a degree in mathematics. In 1955, she went back to school to earn her master’s degree in the same field.
Like other Black female software engineers, West is often referred to as a “hidden figure” due to the overlooked nature of her significant contributions. The Virginia General Assembly officially honored West in 2018 for her role in the creation of GPS. In 2018, she was recognized as one of BBC’s 100 Women of 2018 as well as inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame.
6. Marc Hannah
Dr. Marc Hannah, along with a group of other computer scientists, founded Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI) in 1982. The company quickly became a leader in the computer graphics industry by developing groundbreaking software and hardware used to create innovative 3D visuals and effects, particularly for films like Jurassic Park and Terminator 2.
Hannah left the company in 1997 and, since then, has been involved in a number of other successful technology companies. One of these companies, SongPro, developed an MP3 player for the Game Boy Advance in 2022.
Hannah has enjoyed widespread recognition as a pioneer in his field and continues to advocate for innovation within technology industries.
At App Academy, Diversity is Important to Us
Black people are starting to fill more roles in the field of software engineering, and famous Black computer programmers are gaining more recognition for their work, but there’s more to be done. At App Academy, we work to level the playing field so that everyone has a fair shot at making it in the tech industry. We want to do our part to build an inclusive software engineering workforce.
Learn more about our Diversity & Inclusion efforts, or contact an Admissions Specialist to learn more about our programs today!